After a year of bitter disappointments, Brad Keselowski overcame a great deal of adversity to score his first win of the season in Saturday night’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The final difference came with a final round of pit stops with 27 laps to go. Kasey Kahne who led most of the first half of the race took only two tires, while Keselowski took four. Jimmie Johnson who led most of the second half of the race, slipped on the final restart leaving the battle between Keselowski and Kahne. In the end the four tires made the difference as Keselowski was able to get by Kahne in the closing laps. After missing this year’s Chase and unable to defend his championship the win was extra special for the Penske Racing driver who led only 11 laps on the night.
Jeff Gordon took the lead from pole with Kevin Harvick falling into second. Gordon stretched his lead out as the pack fell in single file behind. By lap 6 Gordon’s lead was a second over Harvick; behind them Greg Biffle and Johnson contested third with Kahne close behind.
By the eighth lap Johnson had taken over third and Kahne fourth. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had worked his way into sixth just behind Biffle. Johnson had caught Harvick on lap 13 and two laps later moved into second. Up front Gordon had stretched out his lead to just over two seconds. By lap 19 Gordon was starting to lap the field, three laps later Kahne had passed Harvick and Hendrick Motorsports had a lock on the top three spots.
The first caution came out on lap 24 when JJ Yeley hit the wall along the backstretch. Thanks in part to lapped traffic Johnson had cut Gordon’s lead to a half a second when the caution came out.
The field came in for their first stops of the night. The top runners took two tires with the exception of Gordon who took four. Kahne took the lead, Johnson was second and Earnhardt third. Gordon restarted 13. Kyle Busch was forced back in as the crew had a miscommunication during the first stop. The front tire changer began to take off the right side tire for a four tire stop when Busch took off. He was forced to return to have the wheel retightened and restarted in 36th place.
On the restart on lap 30, Kahne started to move out but Earnhardt shot to the outside and to the lead. Gordon had moved his way to the 5th spot by lap 34.
Thanks to some trash on his grill, Earnhardt let his teammate Kahne pass to clean it off. Not only did the move not work, but Earnhardt fell back and was unable to catch Kahne. He fell back past Truex Jr. in third with no luck; it took Earnhardt one more spot to Johnson before he was able to get close enough to dislodge the debris. Gordon remained in 5th.
Kahne stretched out his lead up front to over a second and a half. By lap 60 it was nearly 4 seconds over second place Truex. Truex began to be challenged by Johnson and on lap 66 second place was being contested. The fight ended on lap 68 when Truex came in to start a round of green flag stops. Kahne held the lead with Truex back to second after the cycle ended on lap 78.
Caution came on lap 83 when the engine in Mark Martin’s Chevy let go. During the extended caution the top eight stayed out as those behind pitted including Harvick and Keselowski. Keselowski left with his jack still under the car and had to slowly make his way around and came back in. It took the crew several extra seconds to repair the damage. Logano too had issues as he had to come back in for missing lugnuts.
Green came back out on lap 90. Earnhardt shot to the lead past Kahne on the outside while Johnson and Gordon fought for second. A lap later it was a line of four Hendrick cars first through fourth with Johnson in fourth. Kyle Busch had rallied back from earlier pit road issues and was fifth.
By lap 94 Kahne was working on Earnhardt for the lead. On lap 95 Kahne had retaken the lead. He had stretched that out to a 3.5 second lead by lap 118. Earnhardt began to feel pressure from Johnson for second. Johnson took over the second spot on lap 122. Gordon was starting to see Busch closing for fourth. Busch made the pass for fourth on lap 126; Gordon immediately got the call to pit and took four tires. Earnhardt soon followed. The top eight who had not pitted during the previous caution now began to file in for green flag stops.
After the cycle Kahne was back in the lead, Kyle Busch was second, Earnhardt third, Johnson fourth with Gordon fifth. Kahne’s lead was just over four seconds. Johnson though was soon shadowing Busch for the second spot. He took over the second spot on lap 147. Gordon and Earnhardt were contesting fourth.
The long green flag ending when the third caution came out on lap 172 for debris. The leaders pitted with Kahne keeping the lead. The restart was a drag race between Kahne and Johnson with Johnson able to shoot out to the lead a lap later. Kahne fell into second; Kyle Busch was third with Gordon and Earnhardt rounding out the top five.
The biggest mover was Matt Kenseth who was outside the top 10 most of the race and had moved into sixth by lap 183. Harvick who had struggled all race long started a round of green flag stops on lap 225. Johnson maintained his lead after the stops.
With 100 to go, Johnson led over Kahne by just over three seconds, Busch was third while Kenseth continued his rally and was fourth. Clint Bowyer had also made a nice recovery and was running fifth, Gordon was sixth. Green flag stops started on lap 275; meanwhile on the track, Johnson had caught Earnhardt who had dropped to 12th and passed him to put Earnhardt a lap down. Earnhardt hit pit road two laps later. Johnson made his pit stop on lap 283.
Johnson was the leader after the cycle of stops but saw his led shrink to 1.8 seconds. Kahne settled in second with Busch just behind him in third. Kahne slowly began to chip away at his lead. Bowyer, who was running fifth earlier, reported that his engine was starting to go away. Earnhardt who had made up some time and regained his lost lap, was passed by Johnson again but knew that he would have to pit at least one more time. By lap 303 only ten cars were on the lead lap.
The fourth caution came out for debris with 27 laps to go. The caution ended the fuel mileage gamble for most of the leaders who all pitted. Kahne and Gordon took only two tires. Kahne won the race of pit road, followed by Gordon. Johnson came out in third. Kahne and Gordon were side by side for the lead, while Johnson got loose and fell back. Kenseth suddenly appeared in second while Johnson settled into seventh.
“Down in (turns) one and two just in the dirty air,” Johnson said. “I pushed the No. 5 (Kahne) off into (turn) one. He didn’t get the best restart and something to do with that combo got me off the bottom and a couple of cars got into the side of me. If we could have come out second which was really close with the No. 24 (Gordon) and start on the front row I think it would have been a much different result for us, but it didn’t happen. “
Keselowski had worked his way inside the top ten and on the restart was able to shoot towards the front.
Johnson reeled in Gordon and was fifth with 17 to go. But as Keselowski and Kenseth battled for second Kahne pulled ahead. Keselowski was able to clear Kenseth though and he was soon stalking Kahne for the lead. Keselowski got under Kahne with 11 to go and the fight was on for the lead. The two swapped spots with Kahne just holding the lead. Keselowski finally got by with 9 to go. From there he was able to stretch out a tenuous lead and hold on for his first win of the season.
“It was a great night for us, obviously,” Keselowski said. “Whenever you can win it's a great night. But to win under the circumstances we did, obviously a little adversity in the middle of the race, and then a great battle with two stallions here, Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth…To put all that together at the end and come out on top is something we're going to be proud of and cherish for a long, long time.”
Behind Kahne in second Kenseth was able to recover and hold on for third maintaining his lead in the standings. Johnson was fourth, with Kyle Busch fifth. Harvick recovered from a lap down to finish sixth, Gordon was seventh, Ryan Newman eighth Denny Hamlin ninth and Carl Edwards rounding out the top 10. Other Chase contenders: Bowyer was 11th, Kurt Busch was 14th, Earnhardt was 15th, Biffle 16th, and Joey Logano 18th.
“The way the night went, it was crazy,” Kenseth said. “We fired off that last restart and the two cars in front of me had two tires, and I couldn't believe that they figured out how to give me a chance to win again, and I am kind of disappointed that I didn't figure out how to win it with the position he put me in and the good restart I had coming out of Turn 2 in second. I thought for sure I'd have a shot to go around Kasey, and just couldn't get it done.”
Kenseth maintains his points lead by four over Johnson. Bowyer and Earnhardt swapped positions, Bowyer to 8th, Earnhardt to 9th, and Edwards and Logano swapped as well with Edwards moving to 10th, Logano to 11th.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup series heads to Talladega Superspeedway for next Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 500.